This paper reports the findings from an empirical study on Taiwan and England and Wales, where comparisons both of the punitiveness of the penal system in each country as a whole (1994-2005), and of punitiveness of pronounced sentences, at the 'front-end' of the system were made. The significance of this collaborative empirical project is the attempt to use and develop relatively uncomplicated, yet criminologically meaningful, indices of punitiveness which allow for standardised measurement. As well as reporting the core findings, this paper highlights the methodological and conceptual issues at stake in any research on 'penal geography'. The paper concludes with some systematic reflections on the persuasiveness or otherwise of existing explanations for area differences in punitiveness in the scientific literature. © 2011 Elsevier Ltd.